Having experienced a relegation fight before, Isaiah Osbourne is well-versed in the qualities required for survival, and the Englishman believes Hibs are well-equipped to face the final three months of the SPL season as they bid to avoid demotion to the First Division.
The Easter Road club, joint bottom of the league alongside Dunfermline Athletic on 19 points, clash with on-form Motherwell at Fir Park this evening and their former Aston Villa midfielder Osbourne will continue to draw upon all the battling qualities he honed while in a dogfight during a loan spell at Nottingham Forest three seasons ago.
“When I was at Nottingham Forest, we were in the bottom four and I was there on loan to help them stay up – and luckily we did,” said Osbourne. “I’ve been through this before.
“From now, you have to take every single game as if it was a cup final and put in one hundred per cent into every single game. It’s quite hard when you’re at the bottom.
“It’s mostly about belief. You can easily lose your confidence because you maybe feel the crowd is on your back. Hibs are such a big club up here that you feel like you’re under pressure. Forest are a big club as well, so I understand. The main thing for the boys is to just relax, play their normal game, and forget about the pressure. We’re going to just have to pull through it.”
Osbourne says that the positive results gained before Sunday’s 5-0 defeat by Celtic, where Hibs achieved consecutive clean sheets at home to Kilmarnock to Aberdeen, are still at the forefront of his thinking. The influential midfielder reckons a survival instinct still exists among his team mates.
“I think it does – you can just tell with the boys,” he said. “The game on Sunday, I think that was a step back because we had gone two games with a clean sheet. As soon as they scored the first goal, our heads went down. I don’t think they were playing much better football than we were. It was just mistakes, and I hold my hand up for the first goal. I don’t think it’s a major setback, though. Hopefully, tonight we can just kick on again.”
Osbourne endured a frustrating spell on the sidelines through injury from shortly before Christmas until mid-January. His comeback came in Hibs’ crucial 3-2 victory over Dunfermline at East End Park and there was little surprise that the dominant midfielder inspired an upturn in the Edinburgh club’s league form. He has since shone alongside Lewis Stevenson in Hibs’ midfield.
“Since coming back, I’d say it’s been quite hard work because of where we are in the table,” admitted Osbourne. “I’m still trying to get my game back to where it was. Before I got injured, I was getting into my stride. I’d say I’d reached my peak and was more confident. I felt fit and sharp, and I feel I need to get back to where I was. Obviously, I’m happy that people are recognising that me and Louie [Stevenson] were playing well but, if the team goes down, we all go down. It’s all about the team.”
Having established a solid central midfield partnership with Stevenson, broken up only by the arrival of Jorge Claros which saw Stevenson redeployed in a wide left role, Osbourne is philosophical over the acquisitions of new players in the Hibs engine room.
“New players coming in make people want to work harder to stay in the team,” said the 24-year-old. “They also bring something different to the team, and that’s what we needed. With Soaresy, he’s more of an attacking midfielder. I’ve seen him from his time at Crystal Palace. Whereas Jorge is a more of a calm, relaxing player who likes to get on the ball and play.”
The victory over Dunfermline last month remains Hibs’ only win in ten league games since the Motherwell away fixture was initially scheduled for completion. In early December at Fir Park, an electrical fire at the Lanarkshire ground saw Pat Fenlon’s first match in charge of Hibs abandoned at half time with the visitors 1-0 ahead through a Garry O’Connor strike.
Osbourne can vividly recall the frustrations of that evening and decided that the occurrence of a problem as unlikely as a floodlight fire was typical of the ill-fortune with which Hibs have been forced to contend this season. “To be honest, we didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “We were in the changing room ready to go out. The boys were stretching, ready to go out. When we were 1-0 up, the enthusiasm in the team was such that the boys wanted to get out early doors. We were just about to leave and someone came to the door and told us about the floodlights and the fire and said just take a seat. About 15 minutes later, they told us the game was called off. The boys were all gutted – it seemed like we couldn’t get a break. We were near the bottom of the table and 1-0 up at half-time and there’s a fire in the stadium.”
Setting Fir Park alight these days is the on-fire striker Henrik Ojaama, nemesis of Hearts on Saturday, who Osbourne says will be Hibs’ major threat.
Well and Ojaama convincingly ripped through Hearts on Saturday and will be aiming for a second Edinburgh scalp in five days. More importantly for the Fir Park side, Rangers are now within catching distance and an unlikely challenge for second place is now a reality. Hibs, on the other hand, could gain ground on tenth place – and pull away from Dunfermline should the Pars fail to pick up points from their visit to Celtic Park tonight.
“The striker Ojaama looks like the main threat for them. Keith Lasley is suspended, and he was injured for the game the last time that was called off. He’s like an engine in there, and he will be a big miss. We’re fighting to stay up and they’re fighting for second. With Rangers being deducted points, they probably think they’ve got a real chance now, just six points behind.”